A foraging wild creature, intent above all upon survival, is as strong as the grass. ~ Richard Adams
This is a slightly out-of-date blog about foraging, but it makes me happy so I’m posting it anyway. The seasons move quickly, so many of the plants I mention here are starting to go to seed at this point, but I hope someone finds this inspiring or educational anyway!
I spent a lot of time as a kid ransacking my parents’ bookshelves for book treats, and there were millions. (Probably the most notable of these was the script of the extremely adult and Pulitzer prize-winning play Angels in America, which I read over and over until I could quote entire passages, totally blasted my eleven-year-old neurological development, and turned me immediately into the bleeding-heart liberal I still am today.)
One of my all-time favorite finds was Euell Gibbons’s Stalking the Wild Asparagus. The title, for me, still conjures up an image of a bearded hippie, magnifying glass in hand and a look of blood in his eye, creeping through the hedges towards an unsuspected asparagus plant. Which I think is the point. Armed with this cheeky and reverent tome, written in its grand old voice, and a copy of the late great Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain (similar theme, totally different age-appropriate perspective), I struck out into the wild with a singular mission: Find things, and eat them. My eyes were always peeled.
On one occasion, I found a bush sporting likely-looking clusters of richly purple berries (“Wild grapes!” I thought, recalling Euell) and filled the pockets of my off-white corduroys, which were then ruined forever. On another, I painstakingly collected acorns from an oak in the woods near my house, pulled the teensy acorn nibs out, boiled them in three changes of water over an hour to remove bitter tannins, and ate them. They were the texture of sad boiled peanuts with a stunningly unpleasant bitter taste. Wine makers use oak barrels to give wine tannins, after all: Oak is the king of bitter. I did not know this at the time. Undaunted, I picked the sunny flowers of dandelions in late spring, dipped them in a batter of egg and flour, and pan-fried them for dandelion fritters. They were okay, but confusing. By the time I reached college, my passion for foraging had mostly fizzled out. (Except for one notable occasion when a mycologist came to visit a class that I was assistant-teaching, held up the biggest most beautiful hen-of-the-woods mushroom I have ever seen, and said “I picked this an hour ago in the woods on this campus.” I actually shrieked in delight—in front of 60 of my students—and in response he gave me the entire mushroom, which I sautéed for dinner that night on my hot plate with great reverence and ceremony. Edible wild fungi are sacred and represent everything right with this planet.)
But all of my old foraging fantasies have been realized since I discovered the quintessentially Baltimore Charm City Farms, and now whenever I go outside everything green looks potentially tasty again. Headed by Victoria and Eric the Mangy White Bushman, Charm City Farms manages a food-forest garden of wild edible plants that is open to the public for harvesting (!!!) and infinite workshops on incredible things like foraging, permaculture, and bushcraft. Victoria and Eric led a wonderful wild edibles workshop on a drizzly Spring day last week, and not only did I learn about a dizzying variety of edible and medicinal plants, but on that very first day I gathered enough to make myself a beautiful foraged lunch when I got home.
Spring, I learned, is farther along than I thought. (This was a stunning thing to hear since winter turned me into a pale droopy-eyed cave creature who is still struggling to understand that the outdoors isn’t going to try to kill me again until November.) The tiny mustards and cresses that are apparently the first heralds of spring, like pennycress and hairy bittercress, are starting to flower now, becoming spicy as they go to seed. These next few weeks are the best time for tender shoots, which is a great thing for foragers: This is actually the time of year to stalk the wild asparagus.
Victoria introduced us to tiny shoots of Japanese knotweed, a plant I only knew previously as a hazardous invasive to be ripped out by the roots and aggressed against. But at this time of year it is tender, lemony, and delicious raw, and can evidently be used as an interesting substitute for rhubarb. I was charmed by these tiny plants and their unexpected deliciousness. I was reminded that wild chives grow like weeds everywhere, and now I feel that I probably don’t need to put in a supply of cultivated garlic for awhile because it seems like wild chives are never more than a block away no matter where you are.
I’ve known that garlic mustard is edible for quite a long time, but every time I’ve sampled it in the past it’s been overwhelmingly bitter. I’m really not one to shy away from garden-variety bitter greens—if some horrible veggie tyrant made me choose only one plant to eat for the rest of my life, it would probably be kale or broccoli rabe. But wild plants have a habit of way, way bitterness, I’m sure because that flavor hasn’t been cultivated out of them for hundreds of years. But at this stage, garlic mustard is still in a tender baby phase. It’s still shockingly bitter, but the bitterness is matched by a pleasant garlic pungency. I’d never known how to identify it in its youth, so when Victoria pointed it out I was very pleased. The youngest member of our group helped me harvest a big bunch of garlic mustard, using an impressive pocket knife. I took the mustard home for lunch.
I felt these two wild plants—the garlic mustard and chives—would be a great foundation for a meal. Bitter spicy veggies crave creamy fat and carbs to balance their flavors, so I settled on white beans, a runny egg, and a toasted slice of Mama Chickpea’s home-made bread that she sent me in the mail! Moms are the best, right?
Here goes a finished meal, the coolest lunch I’ve made in a long time. Plants taken from the wild woods with mom’s homemade bread. Way yum. I do think, in future, that I’ll take more precautions to de-bitter my garlic mustard, because even in its youth it was face-puckering. I detest blanching greens because I feel that bringing water to a boil is generally a waste of my time when I’m going to sauté things anyway, but I think I’ve been overruled in this case. Still, it was absolutely delicious, and the beans and egg set off that plant pungency beautifully. The mustard had the odd quality of turning the oil it was cooked in crazy lime-green, which I’m sure means it was spectacularly good for me. Free food? Check. Nutrition? Check. Childhood dreams of becoming a wild animal? Well, kind of. Or kind of not. But still!
I’ll be posting more foraging-relevant stuff as the season goes on. Happy Spring! Love, Rutabaga